OCTOBER 12, 2004
In the 1994 movie Stargate, director Roland Emmerich presented us with an interstellar portal leading to a planet populated by ancient Egyptian look-alikes. Two years later, with Independence Day, he offered a genocidal alien invasion that was overcome by two guys spreading a computer virus. And two years after that, his Godzilla featured a 200-foot-tall radioactive iguana running amuck in Manhattan. But with his latest film, The Day After Tomorrow, Emmerich has asked us to suspend disbelief to an unprecedented degree: The vice president of the United States, modeled closely on Dick Cheney, is overruled on a policy question by the president. I mean, come on. Even science fiction needs to have some baseline plausibility.
The Day After Tomorrow, released on video the day before tomorrow, introduces (and in all likelihood lays to rest) a new film genre, the Environmental Apocalypse Thriller. The story is like an Earth First fever dream: A government climatologist (Dennis Quaid) theorizes that greenhouse emissions could cause a new ice age in as little as 100 years, but his concerns are brushed off by the pro-fossil fuel vice president. It turns out that Quaid is, in fact, wrong: The climatic cataclysm he predicted does not take decades to occur, but rather seven to ten days. Yes, the entire global climate shifts--obliterating the Northern Hemisphere in the process--in less time than it typically takes to get a dentist appointment. Over the course of Emmerich's biblically awful week, hail stones the size of volleyballs pummel Tokyo, tornadoes suction away half of downtown Los Angeles, and a tidal wave tickles the Statue of Liberty's exposed armpit on its way to a Big Apple rendezvous. It's not, in short, a good week to travel.
Quaid does travel, though. His teenage son (Jake Gyllenhaal) is visiting New York for an academic tournament, which is unfortunate because the culmination of the environmental upheaval--a giant, hurricane-like ice storm bringing lethally frigid temperatures--is bearing down from the North Pole. The situation is so dire that the government plans to evacuate only the southern states; for those north of the Mason-Dixon line, it's already too late. But Quaid, who was frequently an absentee dad because of work commitments (who knew the life of a climatologist was so demanding?), decides that he is going to go to his boy now, even if it means hiking most of the way from Washington to New York in snowshoes. (It does.)
You may already have intuited that The Day After Tomorrow is not the most realistic of films. A larger problem, however, is its political ardor. At the beginning and end of the film are environmental sermons so smug and emphatic that one wonders whether Emmerich actually believes that his dizzy apocalyptic fantasy might come to pass. (He's not the only one: Al Gore, ever in search of a new off-note to hit, helped promote the movie, declaring it a good starting point for debate on climate change.) If the film's overheated environmentalism weren't enough, it also wants to make a point about immigration policy. Fleeing the deadly cold, American refugees illegally stream over the border into Mexico. It's an ironic inversion that, with the right treatment, might have added a dark comic touch to the proceedings; instead, we get more hamfisted homilies: The Mexican government is persuaded to open the border when the U.S. president kindly agrees to forgive all Latin American debt. (Call me cynical, but with millions of American lives at stake, I think a more likely inducement would be the arrival of an armored division.) Rather than aspiring to a straightforward, end-of-the-world escapism, The Day After Tomorrow holds itself to a standard of seriousness it can't possibly meet. It's as if Towering Inferno had lectured us about municipal building codes, or The Poseidon Adventure had lobbied to reform the Law of the Sea.
It's too bad, because as pure entertainment, The Day After Tomorrow has its moments. Emmerich has long had an eye for striking fantasy visuals (the ancient futurism of Stargate, the ominous city-spaceships of Independence Day), and The Day After Tomorrow offers several arresting set pieces--from the savage kineticism of the L.A. whirlwinds, to the quietly eerie sight of millions of birds flapping southward, to the wall of water that washes into lower Manhattan. The problem is that all of these scenes take place in the film's first hour. Once the climatological chaos settles into a turbocharged cold front there's just not that much to see. Quaid trudging up a snow-encased I-95 and Gyllenhaal and his friends outrunning killer frost in the New York Public Library just don't compare.
That's the problem with weather: Except when it's doing something inordinately violent, it doesn't make a very interesting villain. This is not the first time Emmerich has had trouble coming up with a compelling antagonist. Once revealed, the bug-headed aliens of Independence Day were vastly less chilling than the intergalactic dreadnoughts that brought them here. And the colossal failure of Godzilla was due largely to the fact that, unlike his Japanese forebear, Emmerich's monster had no real face, and thus no personality. (It didn't help the movie that Maria Pitillo finally took away Kate Capshaw's long-held crown--earned in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom--for Most Annoying Female Lead of All Time.) The Day After Tomorrow makes a couple of feints toward remedying its villain deficit by supplying a human foil--the Cheneyesque V.P, the rich preppie who competes romantically with Gyllenhaal--but in the end it's still all about the weather.
This makes for a problematic climax because, unlike your typical disaster-movie crisis, the arctic superstorm can't be stopped, or even escaped. It can only be endured. As a consequence, the central tension of the film's final third is (literally) whether Gyllenhaal and his friends will stay inside by the fireplace where it's warm. Perhaps realizing that this is not the stuff of which great cliffhangers are made, Emmerich throws a few other complications his characters' way--a gangrenous leg, a pack of hungry wolves prowling Midtown. But his heart never really seems into these last-minute diversions. Perhaps he was worried about what PETA might say.
The Home Movies List:
Mississippi Burning (1988). Probably the most racist anti-racism movie ever made. Thank goodness those helpless black folks had good, white FBI agents to save them. Director Alan Parker repeated this formula in his next movie, Come See the Paradise (a film about Japanese internment camps told through the eyes of Dennis Quaid), before leaving minorities out altogether with The Commitments (a story about white youngsters who think of themselves as black). Don't even get me started on The Life of David Gale.
Dave (1993). A well-meaning and quite enjoyable film that nonetheless shows that the only reasons Hollywood can imagine for why one might support conservative policies are venality and corruption. It also provides more evidence (as if any were needed) that Sigourney Weaver is wound too tight to play romantic leads.
The Cider House Rules (1999). If not for Jaws 4: The Revenge, this might have been the most shameless role of Caine's career. As it is, it's merely his Scent of a Woman. But even the maudlin sentimentality of Caine's performance wouldn't have gotten him his second statuette had it not been for the film's just-barely-perceptible political message.
Chocolat (2000). Another B-minus offering from Miramax that made the Academy swoon. (Perhaps it's time to add an Oscar for Best Non-Documentary Liberal Polemic?) For anyone keeping score: chocolate (good), sex (even better), and religion (for the repressed and hypocritical only).
Angels in America (2003). There's nothing quite like the way Hollywood congratulates itself for bold stands on issues once they're no longer controversial. (Where were the big-budget, star-studded AIDS educationals back in the 1980s?) Pacino got some grief for his campy scene-chewing as Roy Cohn, but in this case camp was just what was called for. The terrific Jeffrey Wright certainly got this; poor Emma Thompson, striving to be earnest in her Halloween wings, didn't.